A WATCHDOG is being asked to probe the council’s controversial leisure halls disposal deal.
The call comes from a leading opposition councillor who claims to have discovered that they are now being operated by Wigan private sector leisure company Eighth Wonder without a deal in place to sell or rent them.
Hindley’s Jim Ellis has made an official complaint to the District Auditor that the to-date undisclosed terms of the agreement mean that the council is guilty of not ensuring the best outcome for council tax-payers for the external use of municipal buildings.
He claims that it could mean that hard-pressed town hall chiefs have already missed out on thousands of pounds in rent.
But while the council is declining to confirm or deny any specific details of the deal, it insisted today that the deal was saving the council £150,000 a year in maintenance and running costs.
Two years ago, after a long consultation and bidding process, the council agreed to dispose of Hindley’s Monaco Ballroom (now the Rose Club) plus Formby, Aspull and Ince Public Halls to Eighth Wonder.
Coun Ellis said that his alleged findings have left him “staggered.”
A leading figure in a failed and rival community bid to take over the running of the old Monaco, he said: “I have made inquiries regarding the sale of the Monaco and am now amazed and angry to find that not only has it not been sold but neither have any of the other halls with the exception of Aspull.
“Furthermore, no indication was given as to when they will be sold although the reason given for not proceeding is cited as legal issues.
“I will be very surprised if the purchasers have given the sale price to the council prior to completing the sale and the council hasn’t asked the new owners to pay any rent since taking over and that is around two years ago!
“As it and the others haven’t been sold I assume that all maintenance repairs are being funded by the council as it is still the legal owner.
“Since the deal, the present operators have apparently had use of this and the other facilities for free and I am now wondering if they are also rate-free or do the council pay this as well?
“As no rent is charged what about the profits? Am I to assume this is also gifted to the possible eventual owners?”
Coun Ellis has calculated that over the last two years the council could have reasonably expected to have raised £160,000 in rent for lease of the four leisure halls (at the rate of £20,000 each per year).
He claimed: “If we assume that each hall under the present arrangement is earning £50k per year profit, the Monaco has been paid for out of profits. How long is it going to be before the other halls are paid for without the operators having to come up with any money of their own?”
In his complaint to the District Auditor, he accuses the council of “gross incompetence” in handling the disposal deal. And he is now asking which of the ruling Cabinet members is going to “take responsibility for it and resign?”
Coun Ellis said: “One has to wonder if Alice in Wonderland has been let loose to run the town hall. I can’t believe that any company could be run like this by selling assets and allowing the purchaser to effectively buy the assets using money from the council and the council tax-payers to fund it.”
Council head of legal John Mitchell said that the transfer of the leisure halls was a result of the budget restrictions imposed on the council and was saving council tax-payers £150,000 per year.
He said: “The council hasn’t incurred any costs, in respect of the properties’ outgoings or maintenance, during the sale and we are finalising details at present.
“The deal agreed with the operators has enabled the venues to stay open and available for the benefit of the communities they serve.
“In the light of the savings the council has had to make this is excellent news for the people of the borough.”